Has Corbyn changed?

Lorna Finlayson

By the end of the Labour Party Conference last week, it was clear that something had changed. For once, the media coverage was broadly positive. The same outlets that had played host to endless attempts to derail the party's leftward movement, and to undermine its elected leader, now granted a belated (and qualified) endorsement – if not of Jeremy Corbyn's project, exactly, then at least of its legitimacy and viability as a political force.

Sky News pronounced Corbyn 'king of all he surveys' in its assessment of his keynote speech. Lord Jim O'Neill – who got an ironic mention in the speech – has written in the Financial Times that Labour is 'poised to shake up the status quo'. The Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts delivered a backhanded compliment: 'Don’t scoff at Comrade Corbyn. His party’s got zip in its tank – and if the Tories don’t wake up, we’re all banjaxed.’ Even the Guardian, arguably Corbynism's most dedicated adversary, endorsed the leader’s speech as 'catching the zeitgeist'. Polly Toynbee, having spent the best part of the last three years trying to sink Corbyn, now says that he is 'winning the battle of ideas'.

So what changed? In a half-hearted attempt to save face, previously hostile commentators imply that Corbyn and his policies have somehow evolved to be at last worthy of endorsement by respectable opinion. Corbyn's oratory has really come along, they say. Yet his conference speech included the usual handful of fluffed lines, and the delivery towards the beginning sounded forced in places. If his usual critics had wanted to, they could have made a big deal of that – as they have done in the past. But concerns over Corbyn's oratorical skills or his self-presentation were always disingenuous. The occasional slip aside, Corbyn in 2015 was a pretty good speaker and communicator – far better than his predecessor, Ed Miliband. His proficiency is the legacy of more than thirty years as an activist and campaigner, not of a three-year crash course in the ways of the political establishment.

If it isn’t a change of style that's made the difference, it must be a change of substance. But Corbyn's new converts are hard pressed to say what that change is. The Guardian claims that Labour fought last year's election on 'policies from the past', while its new agenda is 'future-facing and concerned with dispersing the rights, wealth and power currently concentrated in a few hands’. But this egalitarian and democratic project has been at the heart of Corbynism, and the main source of its appeal, from the outset. Corbyn's Labour has deepened and extended its policy commitments since its popular but necessarily rushed 2017 election manifesto. But the new commitments emerging from the party conference – taxing second homes to create a 'solidarity fund' for supporting homeless people; giving workers a stake and a voice in the companies that employ them – are recognisably of a piece with previous ones. It isn’t Corbyn that has changed, but his opponents, as they now acknowledge that Corbynism has outlived their estimations of its life expectancy, and is the only plausible challenger to a Tory party in total disarray.

The biggest fear for those of us who welcome the direction in which Corbyn and his supporters are trying to move British politics has always been that they would either be crushed by their enemies (both within and outside the Labour Party) or sell out, capitulating to received wisdom about 'electability'. That has not happened. The party has emerged from its annual conference with its left-wing agenda intact and emboldened.

After a summer overshadowed by accusations of anti-Semitism, which the National Executive Committee tried to put an end to by adopting the full IHRA definition, supporters of Palestinian rights may have feared that the party's conciliatory stance would prevent it from speaking up for Palestine and holding Israel to account. The signs so far are that this has not happened either. Corbyn said Labour would ‘work with Jewish communities to eradicate anti-Semitism, both from our party and wider society’. He also reiterated his party's promise to recognise a Palestinian state immediately on taking office. Still more significant, though virtually unreported, was the passing of a motion to freeze arms sales to Israel.

The media focus has been on domestic economic policy, but it is arguably in foreign affairs that Corbyn’s challenge to political orthodoxy is most striking. He promised to put ‘diplomacy before tub-thumping threats’, and ‘no more reckless wars of intervention like Iraq or Libya'. He condemned the Tory collusion with the Saudi-led war on Yemen, which has displaced millions of people and killed tens of thousands of children, and said Labour would work ‘to resolve the world’s injustices, not standing idly by, or worse, fuelling them in the first place’ (an implied criticism of previous administrations). These are not new convictions on Corbyn’s part but lifelong commitments. Yet they are a radical departure from a cross-party historical norm in British politics.

Even on the Labour left, socially progressive domestic policies have often not been accompanied by an opposition to war and imperialism: Clement Attlee sent troops to Korea; Michael Foot, the Labour figure with whom Corbyn is most often (though misleadingly) compared, supported the Falklands War. Today’s political establishment has learned little from the disaster of Iraq – the consequences of which are still unfolding – and remains wedded to an imperial vision of Britain’s role in the world as a beacon of civilisation among backward and savage nations. Our leaders have continued to wreak havoc abroad, ostensibly for the good of the natives, acknowledging their mistakes only once it is too late to undo them – and then repeating them.

As with many of Corbyn's positions, his views on military intervention resonate more with people at large than they do with the political and media circles that pretend to represent ‘public opinion’. This resonance is double-edged. Corbyn’s anti-interventionism strikes a chord not only among those who share his outlook on global politics, but also among many whose war-weariness is bound up with an outlook that resents money being spent on ‘foreign aid’ and calls for a ‘tough’ line on immigrants and refugees.

But if there was a time when foreign and domestic policy could be treated as separate spheres, when Britain could do what it liked to the rest of the world without having to see or deal with the consequences, that time is long past. It isn’t a question of balancing obligations to a domestic population with quasi-charitable duties to distant others, but of drawing the connections between Britain’s actions in the world and the effects of those actions at home as well as abroad, whether in terms of terrorism, ecological and economic crisis, or the mass displacement of people. Our common interest lies in a total break with the patterns of the past. By refusing to change, Corbyn has already changed a lot.


  • 2 October 2018 at 5:46pm
    semitone says:
    Anyone else growing a little weary of Finlayson's relentless tub-thumping for Corbyn? If it is meant as a correction to the relentless attacks on him by the Mail, Tele etc., then it falls flat: sympathetic but critical and informed reportage would do that work better, if Finlayson can manage it or the lrb finds someone who can.

    Describing the Guardian as Corbynism's most dedicated adversary is nothing short of paranoid and ridiculous; the statement that the NEC "tried to put an end to [accusations of antisemitism] by adopting the full IHRA definition" is a long way short of even half the story.

    • 2 October 2018 at 8:06pm
      mahoola says: @ semitone
      I don't think it's entirely uncritical. She points out his flaws as an orator. What are your criticisms of Corbyn? I hear little about the policies, which are, of course, what ultimately matters if they are hoping to be a government. Everything else is either about Brexit, on which he is fairly clearly strategically opaque; or about general matters of presentation, about which I don't personally care much.

      Though I do tend to agree with you that The Guardian is not Corbynism's most dedicated adversary; but it *is* close to being Corbyn's. In my opinion, they (most of their senior staff and op writers) *never* got over being so thoroughly ignored by the Labour membership, whose ear they believed they had. So there has been a huge will on their part to find themselves proved right.

      In the same paragraph you mention the IHRA 'definition', which couldn't look less like a definition if it tried. (cf Stephen Sedley's LRB article on this.) I do not particularly want to get into whether antisemitism in the labour party is 'severe and widespread' or barely existent. But I will point out that The Guardian has recently come under opprobrium from the Media Reform Coalition, highlighted in a letter signed by Chomsky et al. (

    • 3 October 2018 at 8:07am
      JamesBaldwin says: @ semitone
      I don't think you're right. There is criticism here - note her observation that Corbyn appeals to isolationist anti-immigrant constituencies as well as progressives, and the very thing you cite - the adoption of the IHRA definition - is also a criticism.

      On the IHRA definition - Finlayson doesn't pretend to be telling the full story or half of it, and a short blog post on media coverage of the conference would not be an appropriate place to do that. She tells the end of the story accurately.

      As for the Guardian being Corbyn's most dedicated adversary, one can make a very good case for this. Of course the Guardian has published columns by people who support Corbyn - its op-eds represent a range of views and this is exactly as it should be. This is a basic expectation of a paper like the Guardian and does not deserve praise. The Guardian's editorial line, and the position of most of its regular columnists (Toynbee, Freedland, Jenkins, Rawnsley, d'Ancona, Behr etc.) was relentlessly hostile. The only exceptions were Owen Jones and George Monbiot, and the latter doesn't often write about party politics.

      The reason the Guardian was Corbyn's most dedicated adversary is that it is a paper of the liberal centre. In particular, it represents the centrist and right wings of the Labour Party, the constituency that was most threatened by Corbyn. From the beginning, it was always clear that Corbyn threatened to take over Labour and sideline the party's right permanently. But until the 2017 election the media almost unanimously considered him unelectable, and so he wasn't seen as a threat to the Tories. In fact, he was considered a gift to the Tories, and for that reason while the Tory papers liked to ridicule him, they were not particularly bothered about unseating him. For them, the longer he stayed in control, the longer Labour's civil war would drag on, and the better Tory hegemony would be established. That is a very different kind of hostility to the Guardian's, and it was, in my opinion, far less damaging.

    • 3 October 2018 at 10:52am
      SimonDawes says: @ semitone
      A study has just come out which shows the level of inaccurate and misleading news stories in the British press on this particular issue. The right-wing press weren't actually that bad. The Guardian were well ahead of everyone else for publishing inaccurate stories about Corbyn and antisemitism. BBC TV news (though not online articles) was second. This is not paranoia.

      The study is available here:

      And I also wrote a thinkpiece on this with a series of questions for The Guardian and the BBC, in particular, on their framing of the "crisis":

    • 3 October 2018 at 12:10pm
      stettiner says: @ mahoola
      People from Media Reform Coalition writing a letter to The Guardian praising a report from ... wait for it ... the Media Reform Coalition...

  • 2 October 2018 at 8:15pm
    mahoola says:
    On why the reportage of him has changed: Well, there's a near-conspiracy theory I've heard, that the prospect of a deranged Tory Brexit has so shaken the centrist establishment that they are prepared even to consider a Corbyn government over the impending doom. This conspiracy theory goes on to suggest there would ultimately be an attempted deep-state suppression of any of Labour's actual policies, which I'll spare you, but I do think that the change of heart on Corbyn as a result of Brexit has a ring of truth to it. The Guardian, BBC and right-wing Labour MPs did do their level best (again) to get rid of him over the summer. This obviously failed, so perhaps it's just that they're genuinely more scared of the Tory alternative.

  • 2 October 2018 at 8:35pm
    curryingfauvel says:
    semitone -

    It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you -

    And FWIW I think Finlayson has been producing exactly what you suggest - sympathetic but critical and informed reportage. It's very welcome and very refreshing.

  • 2 October 2018 at 9:23pm
    bronterre says:
    Finlayson is both well-informed and critical, as she shows even within this piece. Her central argument Corbyn's basic positions, and those of the people around him, are unchanged, while the media have variously failed to or struggled to keep up, is demonstrably sound. The media's plight is more acute in the case of the Guardian, which has had to wrestle with the conception of what the mainstream left of centre is, now that Corbyn has changed that reality, sometimes personalised recently in the risible tactic of differentiating between "progressive" John McDonnell and naive or sinister Corbyn. A recent letter to the Guardian showed it carried more unbalanced coverage of the antisemitism row than any other paper.

  • 3 October 2018 at 8:20am says:
    There is an easy explanation of Corbyn's newfound legitimacy: a herd will always go on the knees before anyone poised to take power.

  • 4 October 2018 at 3:23pm
    semitone says:
    Thanks all for your intelligent, considered and polite responses to my post. It's given me some things to think about and I will do so.

    A few initial reactions, though: I am still finding it hard to see Finlayson as a critical, clear-eyed commentator on Corbyn; being less of a cheerleader than Owen Jones is faint praise indeed. Mahoola says she points out his flaws as an orator, but that's a safe thing to criticize him for when, as others have said, it's policies that matter (and Maybot is not such an awesome adversary). Even so, how anyone can read Finlayson's third paragraph as a criticism of Corbyn's oratory is beyond me.

    Let it come back to policies, then, of which Corbyn's opacity on Brexit (whether strategic or not) is definitely one. It is surely right that the Conservatives should have fixed on an achievable response to the referendum years ago, and spent the intervening time delivering it; it is also right that either just before or just after the 2017 election, Labour should have done the same. That it has not done so is a travesty, it is Corbyn's fault, and it makes him one of the primary obstacles to a less-than-catastrophic outcome.

  • 8 October 2018 at 6:08pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    On the anti-Semitism issue that crops up in Finlayson’s larger piece in the LRB (as well as in the present blog), readers might be interested in an essay published in the October issue of Harper’s magazine. This is “Letter from the United Kingdom – Among Britain’s Anti-Semites – The Labor Party’s moral dilemma”, written by Tanya Gold. I don’t know if this article is posted anywhere on- line.

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